I Hate the 21st Century Continued, in Which I Reject the Internet and Discuss an Article from The New York Times Concerning An Intriguing Academic Program

February 9, 2010 at 4:29 am | Posted in In the News, Philosophical Problems, Productivity, Sociability, Work Life | 2 Comments

Let me begin with bile and end, for once, on a hopeful note.

So. Lately computers in general and the Internet in particular have been driving me nuts. Several times a day I reflect gloomily on how much of my adult life I’ve wasted staring at screens small and large while pages load. I’ve definitely been either hypomanic or unusually irritable while entertaining this train of thought. Nonetheless, I think there’s genuine insight to be had here. Most days, between work and this space, I log a minimum of 10 hours online. Throw in an evening email check, a quick trip to, say, Amazon.com, and time squandered reading The Times on my iPod at lunch and in waiting rooms, and we’re looking at 12 or 13 hours. No wonder I’m still creeping through Victor David Hanson’s remarkable A War Like No Other.

(Digression that makes me wish for footnotes: When I searched Hanson’s book on Amazon, I was intrigued to note that he’s the author of Carnage and Culture, which I’ve long dismissed as a right-wing tract that blindly and possibly ahistorically that argues that a democratic tradition allowed the West to conquer and enslave New World indigenous cultures. Hanson’s book on the Peloponnesian war demonstrates the subtlety and reach of his scholarship; I’ll have to revisit Carnage and Culture.)

Back to the 21st Century, against which I hold a whole variety of grudges. My shoulders are perpetually sore from hunching over screens. Despite the hardware’s laughably superior processing power, the bloated software on my PC at work runs more slowly than the crude programs I installed on the Commodore 64 I had in high school.

To my endless irritation, the Internet has taken over my life. I date, buy books and clothes, correspond with friends, and work exclusively online. I text or email the gentlemen of my acquaintance to the exclusion of phone conversations (I’ll address the evils of cell phones presently). I’ve initiated, consummated, and ended key romantic partnerships via email (though never by text or instant message). This is crazy, and it has to stop.

Before you all begin to bristle at my Luddite ways, I will note that I reap benefits from it, too. Before online shopping no brick-and-mortar store carried my absurd clothing sizes (a 00 in jeans and a 30DD in bras). I’ve met some lovely people online. I adore Skype’s largely free VOIP service. So what’s the problem? Shouldn’t I brim with gratitude and plunge into every technology developed?

Overall, I think we’ve suffered more than we’re willing to admit. I’ve often joked that the Internet and smartphones are Gen X TV — that is, they destroy relationships and culture with their inexorable spread. Every now and then, I remind my office mate that Kierkegaard wrote Either/Or in its entirety in eight months using quill and ink. I’m here to tell you that hand-written 19th Century German philosophy beats the hell out of even the most learned contemporary discourse.

A few more examples:

1. Cell phones substantially reduce the quality of communication. Digital sound quality invariably muddies conversation. Everyone has a cell phone glued to their ear, yet complains about everyone else’s poor manners (phones ringing during sermons and seminars) and reckless behavior (talking and texting while driving).

2. Constant availability sucks. It also inspires complete submission. My life illustrates this neatly, since I carry two cell phones (company and personal) and a pager, and answer to a work landline, personal and business email, VOIP services like Skype, and instant messaging, which I loathe. Oh, and I text on both of my phones.

I hate, hate, hate this way of living, and I’ve resisted the innovations that irritate me most. It’s a radical step even to cut back on one medium, though. My coworkers, for example, rise indignant when I limit my emailing to two hours in the morning and afternoon; the evil minions of Mission Planning pestered me to get IM, and I gave in. Ever since, I’ve been subject to trivial and distracting interruptions throughout my work day.

3. As availability grows, so does the downpour of trivial requests. In their excellent book Send, David Shipley and Will Schwalby astutely point out that email and other forms of instant communication encourage people to ask for things that they could easily find for themselves. I’m as bad as anyone, demanding documents and contact information that’s easily searched out on our company intranet. This phenomenon causes everyone to fritter away precious work hours hunting down each others’ silly stuff and emailing it back and forth. Worse yet, we expect to get it now, and condemn people who fall behind in this insane environment. (I haven’t, but I’d like to.)

4. The data managers in offices adjacent to mine text me rather than sticking their heads around the door. Forget walking several blocks to the closed area to find me. When I get back, they whine that they needed me immediately. To which I say, then trot over to the next building and stop complaining about your expanding desk ass. They know perfectly well that cell phones aren’t permitted in labs and closed areas.

5. Sure, there’s Google. But that’s created three problems. First, it’s eliminated other sources of information, at least in my life. I don’t go to university libraries, and I have no phone book. I haven’t opened an atlas in years. This isn’t just nostalgia on my part. Each of these information sources carries distinct advantages over its online counterpart.

This trend becomes pernicious when writers argue, as Nick Bilton does in this New York Times article, that Twitter — Twitter! — is now mandatory. His arguments? Without Twitter, you might miss out on a coupon. Never mind that those very coupons will cause you to spend more money overall. Besides, everyone else is doing it, and you might fall behind. Being less available and connected than others is, in his world, perverse, irresponsible, and self-destructive.

This is idiotic. I hate Twitter, if only because it encourages illiteracy (as do texting, instant messaging, and email). For many people, it may be an excellent medium. I hold it in contempt, though, and I will not send or receive tweets.

Finally — and this sickens me — corporations sell Internet connectivity on the basis that it will allow you to find out anything, anytime, anywhere. You may ask, what’s wrong with that? I’m beginning to suspect that this has become a universal excuse for ignorance. Why know that capital of Peru when you can Google it with your smartphone? Why learn Japanese when their are translation programs? I’m serious about this — I think it contributes to our general contempt for education.

6. For all that people are connected, they’re no more available. It’s impossible to know which medium prompts the fastest response from any given person, so in a genuine emergency you have to take the time to page them, leave a voice mail on cell and landlines, send an email, and even tap out an instant message. I’ve done this in a pinch, and it’s an irritating time-waster to both sender and recipient.

So there.

But seriously, we’ve gotten to the point where we regard technology not as helpful, but as mandatory. Rather than scrutinizing and selecting among the various available media, we’ve created a regime under which we adopt everything on pain of being left behind.

There are holdouts. For instance, a couple of prominent bloggers have decided that email doesn’t serve their needs, and they’ve given it up. Others take a more passive-aggressive route, slacking off on their email in-boxes until they’re forced to declare electronic bankruptcy. (Two coworkers are near this point, and I’m annoyed that they never answer my plaintive emails.)

On the whole, though, we’re screwed. That’s why I’m launching an offensive to stay offline.

Starting tomorrow.

Moving along, I can’t stifle my ongoing interest in higher education. As a result, I’d like to share this article from The New York Times about programs that send at-risk high school students to community college early, allowing them to begin earning a two-year degree before graduating from high school.

I regarded the whole thing with skepticism when I first read the headline. Oh, Lord, I thought. Just what every college needs: A further surge of unprepared students. The article impressed me, however. The students go to community colleges (that’s not clear from the headline), which are much better prepared than four-year universities to tutor them in basic academic and study skills.

The numbers show that high expectations work. Not one participant in the North Carolina has dropped out; compare this to a 62 percent graduation rate at its feeder school. The students were far from being overachievers, but they still manage to outperform their older college counterparts. This interests me because community college students are often highly motivated. Two of the best students I know began their careers at a community college — my mom, who earned straight As through her college career, and a former colleague who earned a doctorate at the world-class graduate school where I got my graduate degree. The latter absolutely shames me with his erudition; he reads Homeric Greek and recently mastered Italian. He has a smattering of French, German and Russian (in which he was once reasonably fluent), and is studying contemporary Greek. Not to mention having one edited volume published and another in press. My teaching experience suggests that this applies to community college students in general — by the time they reach a four-year university, they are often well-prepared, and certainly mature.

So, yeah, on the whole community college students can be a force to be reckoned with. They’re often much more hungry for their degrees than the average student at a four-year university, and though many are less prepared when they begin (admittedly, my two examples were not), they can go on to whip more privileged students who go straight into a four-year program. The fact that troubled high school students can outperform an older, ambitious population speaks well for the North Carolina program.

It sounds, then, like solid academics and high expectations can do a lot to counter even a poor K-12 education. That gives me some hope for the future.

I’m finally signing off now after two and a half hours spent writing. I still have to answer my personal email, read my blogs, and look at the newspaper. Then I”l go to work.

Heaven help me.



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  1. If there is a history of consciousness to be written, I suppose the modern chapter would be entitled “Hyper-Fragmentation,” or even “Atomization.” I am about to turn 46 years old, and I can remember a time when one still considered it normal to experience genuine silence, when one could still allot several hours of unbroken time to an absorbing book. I don’t “Twitter” either and can’t imagine doing so – but of course I’m an emailer and a cellphoner like everyone else nowadays, even if I don’t talk much on the phone. I often have my TV on in the background while I work online.

    Without a doubt, there has been a deep shift in daily consciousness. I’m not being naïve here since I’d never conjure up a time when people were all blissfully free to spend their time just as they saw fit; “leisure” is a fairly modern concept, and only a privileged few have ever had much of it. Matthew Arnold’s poem “The Buried Life” evokes beautifully, though in a different framework (belated romantic expressivism) an early instance of the sense of frustration and loss you’re addressing: “But hardly have we, for one little hour, /
    Been on our own line, have we been ourselves.” By our time, it has become anomalous to have even a moment’s unpervaded silence, a moment that isn’t “always already” traversed by multiple demands upon our attention. If we experience a minute of good old-fashioned genuine silence, there’s a risk that we will feel like one of those dreadfully unhappy characters in an Ingmar Bergman film – Winter Light, say. Maybe what we are invoking is nostalgia for some essentiality, some “here and now” or moment of full presence that makes us sinners against the wisdom of Heraclitus and Derrida, but so be it—the desire is an ancient and an honorable one.

    Well, anyhow, that phrase “in the background” from the first paragraph is worth dwelling on. We can often at least prioritize the various things assaulting our consciousness, paying much more attention to some and much less to others. That’s sort of what happens in meditation, isn’t it? Streams of language or imagery or whatever will still run through your mind, but you don’t dwell on them to the point of distraction, and may experience this not-dwelling-on-them as a species of liberation. The sheer volume and intensity of the electronic assault on the relative integrity of consciousness makes it vital to build into our lives things that simply can’t be done right any other way than either in solitude or with genuine concentration: reading hard-copy books, going for walks in a fine natural setting, stargazing, studying a foreign language, and so forth. If we have such anchors, the distractions should become more tolerable, less destructive.

  2. You need to write a book! This material about technology is great!

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